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Its Always More Difficult Than

You Plan and Imagine: Teachers

Perceived Difficulties in Introducing
the Communicative Approach in
South Korea
Chinese University of Hong Kong

Despite the widespread adoption of communicative language teaching

(CLT) in ESL countries, research suggests that curricular innovations
prompted by the adoption of CLT in EFL countries have generally been
difficult. The literature on curriculum innovation suggests that teach-
ers understanding of an innovation is central to its success. A study of
a group of South Korean secondary school English teachers perceived
difficulties in adopting CLT reveals that the difficulties have their
source in the differences between the underlying educational theories
of South Korea and those of Western countries. The results suggest that,
to adopt CLT, EFL countries like South Korea will need to change their
fundamental approach to education and that implementation should
be gradual and grounded in the countries own EFL situations. In the
long run, EFL countries should establish their own contingent of
language researchers in order to develop English teaching theories
more suitable for their EFL contexts. Change agents must study
teachers perceptions of an innovation to ensure its success.

R ecently, educational innovations in L2 education have received

considerable attention (Bailey, 1992; Freeman & Cazden, 1990;
Kennedy, 1988; Markee, 1997; White, 1987). The literature on this topic
includes studies of language curriculum development, language teach-
ing methodology, and the process of innovation that occurs in teacher
development contexts (Bailey, 1992).
Attempts to introduce communicative language teaching (CLT) into
EFL contexts on EFL countries own initiatives and through interna-
tional aid projects have prompted many innovations in L2 education. In
general, such innovations have had a low rate of success (Brindley &
Hood, 1990), and implementing CLT worldwide has often proved

TESOL QUARTERLY Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter 1998 677

difficult (Anderson, 1993; Chick, 1996; Ellis, 1994, 1996; Gonzalez, 1985;
Kirkpatrick, 1984; Sano, Takahashi, & Yoneyama, 1984; Shamin, 1996;
Ting, 1987; Valdes & Jhones, 1991). Difficult as it is, many EFL countries
are still striving to introduce CLT in the hope that it will improve English
teaching there.
Why has CLT been so difficult to implement in EFL classrooms? How
appropriate is CLT for EFL contexts? I believe teachers perceptions of
the feasibility of a CLT innovation in a particular context are crucial in
determining the ultimate success or failure of that innovation (Kelly,
1980; Markee, 1997). For this reason I undertook a case study of South
Korean secondary school English teachers understanding of the uptake
of CLT in South Korea. As many EFL countries share some of the
characteristics of English teaching in South Korea, for example, tradi-
tional teaching methods and large classes, this study has widespread


Since its initial appearance in Europe in early 1970s and subsequent

development in ESL countries (e.g., Britain, the U.S., and Canada) over
the past 20 years, CLT has expanded in scope and has been used by
different educators in different ways. It has no monolithic identity, and
no single model of CLT is universally accepted as authoritative (Markee,
1997; McGroarty, 1984; Savignon, 1983; Savignon & Berns, 1984).
However, according to Richards and Rodgers (1986), CLT starts with a
theory of language as communication, and its goal is to develop learners
communicative competence. Canale and Swains (1980) definition of
communicative competence is probably the best known. They identified
four dimensions: grammatical, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic
competence. This definition has undergone some modifications over the
years, perhaps best captured in Bachmans (1990) schematization of
what he calls language competence. The most significant difference be-
tween the two models is that Bachman takes a far broader view of the role
of strategies than Canale and Swain do and separates strategic compe-
tence completely from what he calls language competencies (Bachman,
1990; North, 1997).
In CLT, meaning is paramount. Wilkins (1972) classifies meaning into
notional and functional categories and views learning an L2 as acquiring
the linguistic means to perform different kinds of functions. According
to Larsen-Freeman (1986), the most obvious characteristic of CLT is that
almost everything that is done is done with a communicative intent
(p. 132). Students use the language a great deal through communicative
activities (e.g., games, role plays, and problem-solving tasks).


Another characteristic of CLT is the introduction of authentic materi-
als (Dubin, 1995; Larsen-Freeman, 1986; Long & Crookes, 1992; Nunan,
1991; Reid, 1995; Widdowson, 1996). In CLT, it is considered desirable to
give learners the opportunity to respond to genuine communicative
needs in realistic L2 situations so that they develop strategies for
understanding language as actually used by native speakers (Canale &
Swain, 1980). Also, activities in the Communicative Approach are often
carried out by students in small groups (Larsen-Freeman, 1986, p. 132).
Students are expected to interact with one another, either through pair
and group work or in their writings (Finocchiaro & Brumfit, 1983). CLT
favors interaction among small numbers of students in order to maxi-
mize the time each student has to learn to negotiate meaning. Teachers
therefore select learning activities according to how well they engage the
students in meaningful and authentic language use rather than in the
merely mechanical practice of language patterns.
Another dimension of CLT is its learner-centered and experience-
based view of second language teaching (Richards & Rodgers, 1986, p.
69). According to CLT theory, individual learners possess unique inter-
ests, styles, needs, and goals that should be reflected in the design of
instructional methods (Savignon, 1991). Teachers are to develop materi-
als based on the demonstrated needs of a particular class. Students must
be made to feel secure, unthreatened, and nondefensive in a CLT
classroom, so teachers using CLT should avoid adopting a teacher-
centered, authoritarian posture (Taylor, 1983).
Thus, CLT is characterized by
1. a focus on communicative functions;
2. a focus on meaningful tasks rather than on language per se (e.g.,
grammar or vocabulary study);
3. efforts to make tasks and language relevant to a target group of
learners through an analysis of genuine, realistic situations;
4. the use of authentic, from-life materials;
5. the use of group activities; and
6. the attempt to create a secure, nonthreatening atmosphere.
I stress that the description above reflects just one definition of CLT,
what Holliday (1994) terms the weak version of CLT. According to
Holliday, the strong version is actually quite different: The focus is not on
language practice but on learning about how language works in dis-
course. The lesson input is language data in the form of text, and
communicative relates more to the way in which the student communi-
cates with the text. Also, students collaborate for the purpose of helping
each other solve language problems rather than for the purpose of
communicating with each other. Because the aim is not to practice


language forms, teachers do not need to monitor group and pair work
closely, and in fact activities do not have to be carried out in groups or
pairs. As long as students are communicating with rich text and
producing useful hypotheses about the language, what they are doing is
communicative, according to Holliday (pp. 171172).


A number of reports in the literature deal with CLT innovations in

EFL contexts. Whereas some accounts have emphasized the local needs
and the particular English teaching conditions in the EFL countries and
the importance and success of traditional language teaching methods
(Bhargava, 1986; Sampson, 1984, 1990), others have strongly advocated
the adoption of CLT in EFL countries (Li, 1984; Prabhu, 1987).
However, the majority of accounts have recognized the difficulties EFL
countries face in adopting CLT.
Burnaby and Sun (1989) report that teachers in China found it
difficult to use CLT. The constraints cited include the context of the
wider curriculum, traditional teaching methods, class sizes and sched-
ules, resources and equipment, the low status of teachers who teach
communicative rather than analytical skills, and English teachers defi-
ciencies in oral English and sociolinguistic and strategic competence.
Andersons (1993) study of CLT in China reported such obstacles as a
lack of properly trained teachers, a lack of appropriate texts and
materials, students not being accustomed to CLT, and difficulties in
evaluating students taught via CLT. Based on a study that assessed the
attitudes of Hong Kong educators toward using CLT in the local context,
Chau and Chung (1987) report that teachers used CLT only sparingly
because it required too much preparation time.
Sano et al. (1984) point out that the Japanese students they studied
generally did not feel a pressing need to use English, so that the goal of
communicative competence seemed too distant for them. A study
conducted in Vietnam identified class size, grammar-based examina-
tions, and lack of exposure to authentic language as constraints on using
CLT (Ellis, 1994). Shamin (1996) identifies learners resistance, among
other problems, as a barrier to her attempt to introduce innovative CLT
methodology in her Pakistan English classroom.
The grammar-based English language syllabus makes the English
teaching situation complex and the local use of CLT challenging,
according to Kirkpatricks (1984) study of CLT in secondary schools in
Singapore. Gonzalez (1985), who studied CLT in Philippine rural areas,
found that English instruction there was irrelevant to the populations
needs, as people there seldom used English.


In studies of CLT outside Asia, Valdes and Jhones (1991) report
difficulties such as teachers lack of proficiency in English, their tradi-
tional attitudes toward language teaching, the lack of authentic materials
in a non-English-speaking environment, the need to redesign the
evaluation system, and the need to adapt textbooks to meet the needs of
communicative classes. Efforts to foster a communicative approach to
the teaching of English in KwaZulu, South Africa, met with pervasive
reluctance on the part of teachers and students to adopt the more
egalitarian, decentralized ways of interacting associated with CLT (Chick,
Although these studies highlight many of the principal problems in
instituting curricular innovations prompted by CLT, many of the studies
take the researchers perspective. Teachers perceptions of innovations
related to CLT remain largely unexplored.


The study reported here used a case study approach to investigate

Korean teachers perceptions of the implementation of CLT.

Background: CLT in South Korea

The South Korean government has placed English learning and

teaching high on its agenda to ensure that South Korea will play an active
and important role in world political and economic activities. Rather
than wait for speakers of other languages to learn Korean, the govern-
ment wants its people prepared to communicate in English with those
who do not speak their language. To that effect, the South Korean
Ministry of Education recently published a series of new policies regard-
ing English learning and teaching. First, early in 1994 the government
decided that English teaching would begin at a younger age (Grade 3 in
elementary schools) starting in 1997 and began to train prospective
elementary EFL teachers.
In addition, realizing that the grammatical syllabus does not help
much to develop learners communicative competence (Development
Committee, 1992, p. 66), the government decided to introduce CLT into
English teaching at the secondary school level. Early in 1992, the South
Korean Ministry of Education published The Sixth National Curriculum for
Middle Schools (Grades 79) and The Sixth National Curriculum for High
Schools (Grades 1012), known among practitioners as the Communicative
Curriculums. The new curricula, which are to guide Korean English
teaching from 1995 to 2010, clearly state that CLT should replace the


dominant audiolingual method in middle schools and the grammar-
translation method in high schools in South Korea (Choi, Park, & Kim,
1986; Lee, 1990).
In the new curricula, the goal of English teaching is to develop the
learners communicative competence in English through meaningful
drills and communicative activities, such as games, with the aid of
audio-visual equipment (Development Committee, 1992, p. 180). Stu-
dents are to learn by means of authentic materials, such as newspapers,
magazines, English news on the radio, and English TV programs. The
curricula reflect the belief that CLT is characterized by learner-
centredness (p. 181), and teachers are encouraged to organize materi-
als based on students needs.
Accompanying the release of the new curricula was the publication of
a series of new textbooks. Over 10 sets of English textbooks are now
available to secondary school English teachers, who are free to choose
any set provided that the whole school adopts it. The new textbooks
incorporate a communicative perspective and more listening and speak-
ing materials and activities relative to the older ones.
Will the shift in the governments policy result in an improvement in
students communicative competence? Is Korea prepared to implement
CLT in English instruction? To answer these questions, I investigated
Korean teachers perceptions of the difficulties in using CLT.


The analysis consisted of a pilot study, a written questionnaire, and

interviews. To develop an appropriate survey instrument for this study, in
summer 1994 I administered a pilot survey to 21 South Korean EFL
teachers studying in a teacher education program at a Canadian univer-
sity. The final questionnaire included both open-ended questions and
questions with fixed alternatives generated from the data collected in the
pilot study (see the Appendix).
In summer 1995, the questionnaire was administered to 18 South
Korean secondary school EFL teachers studying at the same Canadian
university. To ensure that the participants fully understood the questions,
I distributed the questionnaires at the end of a class. The participants
were urged to read the questionnaire, and they asked questions for
clarification. All 18 questionnaires distributed were handed back. Follow-
ing the survey, I conducted in-depth interviews with 10 of the partici-
pants to explore further the teachers background, their understanding
of English teaching in South Korea, and their difficulties in using CLT.
The interviews were semistructured, conducted in a systematic and


consistent order but allowing me as the interviewer sufficient freedom to
digress and probe far beyond the answers to the prepared and standard-
ized questions (Berg, 1989, p. 17). The interviews were conducted in
English. Although I was well aware that the teachers imperfect English
might limit the information they provided, I made certain that they were
able to express their ideas fully by preparing and sending a number of
questions to them ahead of time.
While formulating interview questions, I made sure that the questions
were clear, precise, and motivating (Denzin, 1989). All the interviews,
which lasted 12 hours each, were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim
as soon as possible afterwards. I used the earlier interviews to generate
new interview questions and provide direction for subsequent ones.
Transcripts of the interviews were later given to the participants for


Survey Participants

The participants in the formal questionnaire survey were 18 South

Korean secondary school English teachers who were studying in the
Korean Teacher Education Program (KTEP) at a Canadian university in
the summer of 1995. KTEP was a 1-month program designed especially
for Korean secondary school English teachers and cofunded by the
Canadian and South Korean governments. It had existed for over 10
years. Each summer about 20 Korean English teachers were chosen to
participate in the program, based mainly on their years of service and to
a much lesser extent on their communicative competence in English.
Conversations with the Korean supervisors and teachers over several
programs showed that the KTEP teachers were representative of the
English teaching force that would serve in South Korean secondary
schools for the next 20 years or so.
The 9 male and 9 female participants ranged from 30 to 50 years in
age, with the majority in their 30s; the average age was 36.5 (see Table 1).
Their experience in teaching English varied from 5 to 25 years, with an
average of over 11 years. At the time of the study, 8 participants were
teaching in middle schools, and 10 were teaching in high schools. Many
had taught at both middle and high schools, as secondary school
teachers in South Korea must transfer schools every 5 years; high school
teachers quite commonly transfer to middle schools and vice versa. Half
of the participants were teaching in rural secondary schools and half in
urban settings.


Background of Survey Participants

Teaching experience

Participant Sex Age Years Type of school Grades

1 M 38 9.0 Urban 8
2 F 33 9.0 Urban 9
3 M 37 9.0 Rural 9
4 F 31 10.0 Rural 11
5 F 33 7.0 Urban 10
6 M 37 8.0 Rural 9
7 F 33 8.0 Rural 8
8 M 50 25.0 Rural 10
9 F 32 8.0 Urban 7
10 M 40 15.0 Rural 12
11 M 41 15.0 Urban 10
12 M 40 15.0 Rural 12
13 M 35 10.0 Rural 10
14 F 32 5.0 Urban 10
15 F 42 18.0 Urban 7
16 F 37 14.0 Rural 7, 8
17 M 37 10.0 Urban 10, 11
18 F 30 8.5 Urban 7

Interview Informants

Ten of the 18 survey participants were chosen for interviews. In

selecting interview informants, following Pattons maximum variation
sampling (in Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 200), I allowed for maximum
variation in participants age, sex, teaching experience, teaching setting,
and grades taught. For this purpose, I tabulated the background
information on the survey informants based on the completed question-
naires. I first decided that teachers of all grades (712) must be
represented in the group of interview informants and that middle and
high school teachers should be equally represented. Second, I decided
to include an equal number of male and female teachers and of teachers
in rural and urban schools. I then added the other two parameters,
informants age and years of teaching, which I wanted to be as varied as
possible. The result was a group that was representative of the 18
surveyed teachers (see Table 2).1

All names are pseudonyms.


Background of Interview Participants

Teaching experience

Participant Sex Age Years Type of school Grades

Na-Yun M 38 9.0 Urban 8

Eom-Mi F 33 9.0 Urban 9
Tack-Soo M 37 9.0 Rural 9
In-Ran F 31 10.0 Rural 11
Myong-Sook F 33 8.0 Rural 8
Dong-Soon M 50 25.0 Rural 10
Mi-Ju F 42 18.0 Urban 7
Young-Cheol M 41 15.0 Urban 10
Joon-Suk M 40 15.0 Rural 12
Jin-Kyu M 32 5.0 Urban 10

Data Analysis

Data analysis is not a simple description of the data collected but a

process by which the researcher can bring interpretation to the data
(Powney & Watts, 1987). The themes and coding categories in this study
emerged from an examination of the data rather than being determined
beforehand and imposed on the data (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). Follow-
ing the strategy of analytic induction (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992; Goetz &
LeCompte, 1984), I repeatedly read through the completed question-
naires and the interview transcripts during and after the study. In this
process, I identified and noted recurrent themes and salient comments
in regard to the constraints that the South Korean EFL teachers had
encountered and might have encountered in applying CLT in their
classrooms. These themes were then subsumed under four main


The South Korean teachers were interested in the methods they used
in teaching English. Fourteen of the 18 participants reported that they
were very concerned, and the other 4 reported that they were fairly
concerned. All reported that the grammar-translation method, the
audiolingual method, or a combination of the two characterized their
teaching. However, 12 reported having tried CLT before attending the
teacher education program in Canada and having encountered difficul-
ties in such attempts.


The difficulties reported by the Korean teachers fall into four catego-
ries: those caused (a) by the teacher, (b) by the students, (c) by the
educational system, and (d) by CLT itself. Among them, difficulties
falling into the first category were mentioned most often, almost twice or
three times as much as those in the other three categories (see Table 3).

Difficulties Caused by the Teacher

The Korean teachers were quick to point out that some of their own
problems had stopped them from using CLT. Six major constraints
caused by the teacher were reported: (a) deficiency in spoken English,
(b) deficiency in strategic and sociolinguistic competence in English, (c)
lack of training in CLT, (d) few opportunities for retraining in CLT, (e)
misconceptions about CLT, and (f) little time and expertise for develop-
ing communicative materials (see Table 3).

Deficiency in spoken English. All 18 participants considered that their own

deficiency in spoken English constrained them in applying CLT in their
classrooms. As reported by the Korean teachers, the South Korean
government wanted CLT implemented because of disappointment about
students oral proficiency in English. The government as well as the
teachers hoped that CLT would help students develop better oral
English. Although the teachers generally felt that they were highly
proficient in English grammar, reading, and writing, they all reported
that their abilities in English speaking and listening were not adequate to
conduct the communicative classes necessarily involved in CLT. The
following comment was typical.

1. I am good at English grammar, reading, and writing. But my oral English

is very poor. Since I cant speak English well, how can I teach it to my
students? (Dong-Soon, July 31, 1995)

Surprisingly, even respondents who spoke English fluently and com-

municated well thought their English was too poor to use communica-
tive language teachings ( Jin-Kyu, July 17, 1995). Deficiency in spoken
English apparently prevented some teachers from applying CLT, but for
others lack of confidence was more likely to have been the reason.

Deficiency in strategic and sociolinguistic competence. All 18 participants

reported that their low strategic and sociolinguistic competence in
English would limit their use of CLT. As teachers sociolinguistic and
strategic competence must be much greater in a communicative class-
room than in a traditional grammar-focused classroom, the participants
generally felt incompetent to conduct a communicative class.


Reported Difficulties in Implementing CLT

Source and difficulty No. of mentionsa

Teacher 99
Deficiency in spoken English 18
Deficiency in strategic and sociolinguistic competence 18
Lack of training in CLT 18
Few opportunities for retraining in CLT 16
Misconceptions about CLT 15
Little time for developing materials for communicative classes 14
Students 50
Low English proficiency 18
Lack of motivation for developing communicative competence 17
Resistance to class participation 15
Educational system 61
Large classes 18
Grammar-based examinations 18
Insufficient funding 13
Lack of support 12
CLT 34
Inadequate account of EFL teaching 18
Lack of effective and efficient assessment instruments 16
The number of times the research subjects referred to a theme in either the questionnaire or
the interview as a constraint in using CLT in their own context. The maximum number of
mentions possible for each of the themes included within the four major categories is 18.

2. Students asked more questions in the class. I was happy when they asked
me questions related to the English grammar. But those questions that
are related to the sociolinguistic aspects of English are really hard for me.
. . . In Korea, when you cant answer all of the students questions right
away, you cant be a teacher. (Young-Cheol, July 26, 1995)

The teachers ability to answer all questions promptly is highly valued

in South Korea. The fear of losing face because of not being able to
answer students questions all the time discouraged teachers from using

3. I once tried communicative activities with my Grade 10 kids. The kids

enjoyed it. In fact I enjoyed it too, except they asked so many questions
related to the English culture. They were interesting questions. Some of
them I could answer, and some of them I could not. That made me very
much embarrassed. . . . If your kids find that you cannot always answer
their questions very confidently, you are going to lose their respect and
finally lose them. In our culture, teachers are supposed to know every-
thing and be always correct. ( Jin-Kyu, July 17, 1995)


Because of their deficiency in sociolinguistic competence in English
and fear of losing the respect of their students for being unable to give
prompt answers in class, teachers chose to stick to the traditional
grammar-centred, text-centred and teacher-centred methods so that
[they] always had a good idea about what was going to happen in every
class and made adequate preparations for it (Dong-Soon, July 31, 1995).

Lack of training in CLT. All 18 participants named lack of training as one

of the main obstacles they faced in applying CLT. As reported by the
teachers, they had learned about CLT in different waysin university
methods courses, English teaching conferences, and English teaching
journalsbut they all agreed that they had not practiced it much.

4. Like many of us, I learned CLT when I was studying at university. But it
was taught as a piece of knowledge for us to remember, not to use. I did
not practice using it while at university, though I did try it a few times
later when I became a teacher. (Eom-Mi, July 25, 1995)

5. I learned the term CLT at a teachers conference. To be honest, I did not

quite understand how it works. (Myong-Sook, July 30, 1995)

This lack of systematic training led to a sketchy and usually frag-

mented understanding of CLT and made it difficult for the teachers to
leave the security of the traditional methods and take the risk of trying
new unfamiliar methods (Tack-Soo, July 20, 1995).

Few opportunities for retraining in CLT. Sixteen teachers reported that few
in-service opportunities for retraining in CLT were available. Of the 18
respondents, only 4 had had opportunities for in-service education in
their last 7 or 8 years of teaching. One of the 4 had attended two
in-service teacher-training programs, and the other 3 had attended only
one each. Most of the respondents had not had such opportunities
before the teacher education program they were attending at that time.
Mi-Ju expressed her frustration when asked about her in-service education.

6. This is the first time I participate in an in-service teacher education

program. It took me 18 years to get such an opportunity. (Mi-Ju, July 28,

Even after the publication of the governments new communicative

curricula, few in-service teacher education programs offered training in
CLT. Without proper retraining, teachers will inevitably misunderstand
some elements of CLT.


Misconceptions about CLT. Fifteen respondents referred to teachers
misconceptions about CLT as one of the principal obstacles. A typical
misconception was that by concentrating on appropriateness and flu-
ency, CLT does not teach form at all and thus totally neglects accuracy.

7. Before attending this teacher education program, I thought that commu-

nicative language teaching does not teach grammar and only teaches
speaking. I did not think that was a good way to teach our kids English. I
think grammar should be part of it, at least for our kids. After all, they
have to pass a lot of exams and there is a lot of grammar in them.
(Myong-Sook, July 30, 1995)

Such misunderstandings led the teachers to believe that CLT contra-

dicted their beliefs about language learning and did not allow them to
prepare students for the various exams that are critical to their future
careers. For that reason, the teachers refused to accept CLT.

Little time for and expertise in material development. Fourteen teachers

reported that lack of time for and lack of expertise in developing
communicative materials had been constraints for them. All the English
textbooks available (before the publication of the new series of textbooks
accompanying the publication of the communicative curricula) had
been developed under the influence of the grammar-translation and
audiolingual methods, so teachers had had to write their own materials
and design their own activities if they wanted to use CLT. Because most of
the teachers were already overloaded, any additional work was a burden
for them. This problem was particularly serious for female teachers
because they also had to deal with housework.

8. I teach in a high school. I have to be at school from 8:00 in the morning

to 6:30 in the afternoon. When I go home, I have to take care of my two
kids. Because my husband teaches away from our home in Seoul, I have
to take my kids there at weekends to see him. I really do not have time for
any extra work. (In-Ran, July 24, 1995)

Lack of expertise in designing communicative activities was also a

concern among the teachers.

9. Even if I have enough time for material writing, I do not think I can write
good communicative materials. First, I have never been taught how to do
it myself. Secondly, there are few authentic English materials around me.
That means I have to create everything. Thats beyond me. It also means
I have to spend more time than I can afford. (Young-Cheol, July 26, 1995)

As a result, the teachers either had given up CLT after a brief try or
simply had not ventured to try it.


Difficulties Caused by the Students

The second main group of constraints came from the students. These
constraints included the students generally low English proficiency, lack
of motivation for communicative competence, and resistance to partici-
pating in class (see Table 3).

Low English proficiency. All 18 respondents reported that one important

difficulty preventing them from using CLT was their students low
English proficiency. Korean students do not start to learn English until
after they enter middle school (Grade 7), and they have only four 1-hour
English classes each week, making progress slow. They usually have a
small English vocabulary and a limited command of English structures.
Because students did not have the necessary proficiency in English, the
teachers found it hard to do any oral communicative activities with them.

10. The average secondary school students have a very small English vocabu-
lary. They know limited number of English structures. So they have great
difficulty to express themselves in English when they are assigned to do
communicative activities. Gradually they lose interest in trying to speak
English and become too discouraged to speak English any more.
(In-Ran, July 24, 1995)

As pointed out earlier, the Korean teachers believed that CLT neces-
sarily involved speaking activities. Therefore, when oral activities were
not possible or appeared to be difficult, the teachers became frustrated
with CLT and in most cases gave it up.

11. In such activities, I often see the kids struggling to express themselves in
English, only to make each other more confused. . . . I do not know
whether I am doing the right thing with the kids. To be safe, I prefer to
use the method I am familiar with to help the kids learn. (Eom-Mi,
July 25, 1995)

Little motivation for communicative competence. Seventeen participants

identified students lack of motivation to work on their communicative
competence as a great limitation. Although an increasing number of
people in South Korea have realized how important it is to be able to
communicate in English rather than to know English grammar well,
students in secondary schools still care much more about grammar.

12. My students know it is very important to learn to use English for

communication. But since their goal is to enter the university, they prefer
to work on English grammar because the National University Entrance
Exam is grammar based. ( Joon-Suk, July 26, 1995)


Because grammar still plays a decisive role in all English examinations
in South Korea, teachers who teach communicative competence are not
liked as well as those who teach grammar (Mi-Ju, 28/07/95). Students
complained that they [were] not learning anything if they [did] not
learn new words and grammar in a class (Na-Yun, July 26, 1995).

Resistance to class participation. Fifteen respondents cited the students

resistance to class participation as a primary constraint in trying CLT. As
students have already been in school for at least 6 years by the time they
enter middle school, they have become accustomed to the traditional
classroom structure, in which they sit motionless, take notes while the
teacher lectures, and speak only when they are spoken to. After so many
years of schooling in traditional settings, students rely on the teacher to
give them information directly, making it very difficult to get the students
to participate in class activities.
The inconsistencies among teachers in their expectations of students
also discouraged students from participating in class activities.

13. Especially when English class is the only place where participation is
encouraged, it can bring about confusion for the students as most
teachers of other subjects will probably never tolerate, not saying
encourage class participation. ( Jin-Kyu, July 17, 1995)

To play it safe, students usually chose to behave traditionally in English

class. When students were not willing to participate in class activities,
teachers saw little chance of fulfilling their goal of using CLT, rendering
it pointless to adopt CLT in their class.

Difficulties Caused by the Educational System

The third main group of difficulties relates to the educational system

in South Korea. Four major constraints were identified: large classes,
grammar-based examinations, insufficient funding, and lack of support
(see Table 3).

Large classes. All 18 respondents referred to large classes as one of the

principal constraints on their attempts to use CLT. In South Korea, a
secondary school class usually contains 4850 students. The teachers
found it very difficult, if not entirely impossible, to use CLT with so many
students in one class because they believed that oral English and close
monitoring of class activities were essential in CLT.

14. With that number of students in one class, first of all, it is very difficult for
class management if we use the communicative method. For example,


when everyone starts to talk, the class can be very noisy. Teachers and
students in nearby classrooms will complain about the noise in the
English class. Secondly, it is not possible for the teacher to give each of
them [individualized] attention as required by the communicative method.
With nearly 50 students in one class, it is really difficult to make sure that
everyone is on task. As I have found, some kids like to play around during
group work time. Thirdly, with so many students in one regular class-
room, there is not even enough space for the students and the teacher to
move around to carry out the communicative activities. Especially when
the desks and stools are fixed to the floor, you cannot even move them,
and that makes it difficult to rearrange seats to form nice groups for
discussion. ( Jin-Kyu, July 17, 1995)

Grammar-based examinations. Grammar-based examinations were named

by all 18 respondents as another important constraint. Among the many
English examinations in South Korea, the National University Entrance
Examination (the English section) is the most important one because
other formal and informal English examinations are modeled on it.
Until 1994 it consisted mainly of grammar, reading comprehension, and
translation items. Now it has an additional part called Listening
Comprehension, but its grammar-based nature has remained unchanged.
Teachers, under pressure to make their students do well on such tests,
often devote valuable class time to teaching test-taking skills and drilling
students on multiple-choice grammar items. This exam has strongly
affected the way English has been taught in South Korea.

15. This exam [the National University Entrance Examination] has had
tremendous influence on the English teaching in South Korea. As soon
as students start middle school, they have a clear goal in mindto pass
the National University Entrance Examination. Teachers also have a clear
goal in mindto help students succeed in the Examination. Because it
only tests students grammar knowledge and reading ability, both stu-
dents and teachers are interested in grammar and reading in English
classes. (Young-Cheol, July 26, 1995)

Such an attitude leaves little room for CLT for both teachers and
students. As Savignon (1991) observes, many curricular innovations have
been undone by a failure to make corresponding changes in evaluation.

Insufficient funding. Thirteen respondents mentioned insufficient funding

as a constraint. To use CLT in teaching English, certain equipment and
facilities must be in place. Extra funding is needed to obtain resource
books and materials for communicative activities. When the funding is
not there, using CLT is hard.


16. For example, we will need a photocopier to copy materials for students.
That means we need extra money which is not always there. Its always
more difficult than you plan and imagine. (Eom-Mi, July 25, 1995)

Lack of support. Lack of support was cited by 12 respondents as a

constraint. Although some of the teachers had learned about CLT in
university methods courses, applying it was yet another thing (Dong-
Soon, July 31, 1995). Because the teachers were inexperienced in using
CLT, they would often find themselves in need of help. Unfortunately,
they often found nobody with expertise to turn to for advice.

17. When I had questions about what I was doing, I talked with my fellow
teachers, hoping to get help from them. Often they could not help me.
How I wished there was a CLT expert for questions and support.
( Joon-Suk, July 26, 1995)

Teachers also found lack of support from administration frustrating.

18. Its difficult to get help from our administrators. Particularly before the
new curriculums were published, the principal in my school didnt care
about the method I used. He was only interested in the scores my
students got in exams. Even now after the publication of the new
curriculums, he still cares mostly about the students scores. (In-Ran,
July 24, 1995)

The respondents also indicated that they seldom got support from
fellow instructors teaching other subjects in the same schools.

19. Also, sometimes I needed cooperation from teachers of other subjects;

but, for some reasons, they showed little interest in what I was doing.
(In-Ran, July 24, 1995)

Teachers generally found this lack of professional, administrative, and

collegial support discouraging. Often they lost interest in coping with
the challenges of introducing CLT in their classes.

20. This [lack of support] was extremely discouraging. It was so hard when
everything was on your shoulder. Finally I had to give up CLT and return
to the peaceful and easy traditional method of teaching English.
(Dong-Soon, July 31, 1995)

Difficulties Caused by CLT Itself

The respondents reported two main problems with CLT itself: CLTs
inadequate account of EFL teaching and the lack of effective and
efficient assessment instruments in CLT (see Table 3).


CLTs inadequate account of EFL teaching. All 18 participants reported that
CLT has not given an adequate account of EFL teaching despite its initial
growth in foreign language teaching in Europe. The teachers saw
important differences between teaching EFL and teaching ESL. They
expressed frustration at the fact that the research community, especially
many Western language education researchers, has rarely differentiated
EFL from ESL.
21. In my opinion, EFL is very different from ESL. But many people tend to
confuse them and often ignore the special elements of EFL situations. I
think thats why we EFL teachers usually find Western language teaching
methods difficult to use. ( Joon-Suk, July 26, 1995)

The significant differences that the teachers saw between EFL and
ESL included the purposes of learning English, learning environments,
teachers English proficiency, and the availability of authentic English
22. We have a totally different situation in Korea. . . . In ESL situations,
teachers are mostly English native speakers and they are fluent in
English. But in our case, English teachers are mostly Koreans, and our
spoken English is poor. Besides, in ESL situations, there are many English
materials of different levels that can be used in English classes. But in
Korea, I have difficulty to find authentic English materials except
textbooks. (Tack-Soo, July 20, 1995)

23. For example, in ESL situations, students usually have a very supportive
learning environment outside school. They have many chances to hear
and speak English outside class, which can reinforce what they learn in
class. Besides, they have the motivation to work on oral English because
they need it in their lives. In our situation, the classroom is the only place
where students can hear and speak English. They do not need to use the
language in their lives but only in pretended situations. ( Jin-Kyu, July 17,

To the Korean teachers, accounts of CLT have not taken into

consideration some of the salient features of EFL learning and teaching.
Consequently, introducing CLT into the Korean EFL context could be
24. Because they do not have a good learning environment and they have
only 4 or 5 hours in a week to learn English, our students would soon
forget what they learn in a communicative class because they do not use
English in their everyday lives. (Eom-Mi, July 25, 1995)

Lack of effective and efficient assessment instruments. Sixteen respondents

referred to the lack of effective and efficient assessment instruments as a


barrier to trying CLT. Used to traditional discrete-point testing of
grammatical knowledge, the teachers found it disconcerting that there
were no prescribed, ready-made assessment tools for communicative
competence and that they would have to design their own. The Korean
teachers believed that one of the best ways to test students communica-
tive competence was to give the students oral tests. In general, they each
taught four classes of approximately 48 students. Finishing even one
round of individual oral tests would take a long time, and there was
nobody to supervise the other students while the teacher was conducting
the tests.
25. When you teach four classes and each has nearly 50 students, you are
dealing with 200 students. If I have to do oral examinations to assess their
communicative competence, it would take me dozens of days to finish
just one round. (Mi-Ju, July 28, 1995)

Besides, the Korean teachers generally did not support these subjective
26. There is no way that my colleagues and I would use the same criteria in
the test. Even I myself probably cannot use the same criteria all the time.
I would probably use different criteria when I am tired after long time of
testing. ( Joon-Suk, July 26, 1995)

The South Korean teachers also found it difficult to balance content

and language when scoring oral exams.

27. About a year ago, for the final exam, besides the written test, I did an oral
exam for the students in one of the classes I taught. Giving them a score
was so difficult compared with grading the written tests. My biggest
problem was how much I should assign to the content of their talk and
how much to the language they used. Even before I finished the test, I
knew that I used different criteria. I did not like the results of the test
because they were not reliable. (Myong-Sook, July 30, 1995)


Much of what the Korean teachers said about EFL teaching in their
country and about their difficulties in using CLT is common to many
parts of the world. The following discussion, although it particularly
addresses EFL teaching in South Korea, thus extends to other EFL
countries as well.
A conflict apparently exists between what CLT demands and what the
EFL situation in many countries, such as South Korea, allows. This
conflict must be resolved before EFL teaching in these countries can


benefit from CLT. To resolve the conflict, attention should be given to
the following areas.

Educational values and attitudes. The fundamental approach to education

in Korea needs to change before CLT can be successful there. The
predominance of text-centered and grammar-centered practices in Ko-
rea does not provide a basis for the student-centered, fluency-focused,
and problem-solving activities required by CLT. As Price (1988) points
out, reform of education is not simply reform of the school system but
reform of the behavior and thinking of the wider social teaching-learning
process that guides moral-political ideas and behavior. Far-reaching
curriculum innovation involves fundamental shifts in the values and
beliefs of the individuals concerned (Brindley & Hood, 1990; Burns,
1996). If CLT is to be implemented in a previously traditional classroom,
teachers, students, parents, administrators and other stakeholders must
shift their conceptions of what constitutes good English teaching (Enright
& McCloskey, 1985; Markee, 1997; Penner, 1995).
However, such a fundamental change takes time. Changes in the way
people think usually lag behind changes in social structure (Ting, 1987,
p. 49). Therefore South Korea and other EFL countries with similar
situations should adapt rather than adopt CLT into their English
teaching. Rather than simply jumping onto the CLT bandwagon by
mandating its use, the government and EFL teachers of South Korea and
other EFL countries should carefully study their TEFL situations and
decide how CLT can best serve their needs and interests.

Reading. Because the main purpose of learning English for many people
in South Korea and other EFL countries is to be able to read and
translate into their mother tongue scientific, medical, and technical
documents written in English, Korean teachers should continue their
emphasis on developing students reading abilities. However, instead of
spending much precious time on intensive reading and grammatical
analysis, teachers might introduce some ideas from CLT, such as exten-
sive reading and reading for meaning.

Oral skills. Because the demand for people who can communicate orally
in English has increased as the result of international trade and
globalization, English classes should include listening and speaking
activities. Teachers and administrators must be aware of the shift in
societal needs and make conscious and persistent efforts to introduce
more CLT into English teaching. With globalization, smaller classes, a
better economy, and more competent teachers, a better understanding
and acceptance of the philosophical underpinnings of the CLT are


possible. South Korea and other EFL countries may then be able to use
more CLT or, better still, develop their own locally appropriate version
of the communicative approach (Tomlinson, 1990, p. 36).

Grammar. While trying to introduce CLT, teachers should not feel guilty
about teaching grammar. Contrary to a common misconception, CLT
does not exclude the teaching of grammar (Tompson, 1996). The
literature abounds with arguments for including grammar instruction in
L2 teaching (Lightbown, 1991; Lightbown & Spada, 1990; Savignon,
1991; Schachter, 1991; Widdowson, 1990). Indeed, Celce-Murcia, Drnyei,
and Thurrell (1997) believe that CLT has arrived at a turning point:
Explicit, direct elements are gaining significance in teaching communi-
cative abilities and skills (p. 148). However, teachers must also bear in
mind that the purpose of teaching grammar is to help students learn the
language, and teachers must be wary of making grammar the end of
their teaching. Teachers should also consider alternatives to traditional
grammar instruction, such as grammar-consciousness-raising tasks (Fotos,
1994; Fotos & Ellis, 1991).

Students attitudes. Students and teachers who are negotiating CLT in the
traditional language classroom will need help in adjusting (Abbot, 1987;
Deckert, 1987). In introducing CLT to students who have previously
studied foreign language in a traditional fashion, teachers are likely to
encounter some initial reservations. Thus, teachers will need to con-
sciously reorient students to the basic function of the classroom, the
role of the student and the nature of language (Deckert, 1987, p. 20).

Teachers attitudes. Likewise, some teachers may be reluctant to try CLT, as

it forgoes much of the familiar and requires something different.
Therefore teachers should also have assistance and encouragement in
trying out new ideas and materials. Continuing support for teachers who
may need further help with CLT along the way is also important. This can
be achieved mainly by appointing highly qualified teaching consultants
and conducting in-service teacher education programs. In such pro-
grams, teachers should have opportunities to retrain and refresh them-
selves in CLT and, more importantly, teachers should receive help in
revising, refining, or changing their educational theories and attitudes
( Johnson, 1994; Littlewood, 1984; Richards & Lockhart, 1994; Tilleman,
1994). A language improvement component should also be a part of
such programs (Cullen, 1994; Murdoch, 1994). Although all the lan-
guage skills should be covered, the program should emphasize the
participants speaking and listening skills, a weakness of English teachers
in South Korea and many other EFL countries.


Preservice teacher education. The delivery of EFL methods courses in
preservice teacher education programs should change. CLT should not
be lectured about but demonstrated. Novice teachers should have
opportunities to get hands-on experience with and gain confidence in
using CLT.
More importantly, considering the dynamic nature of the EFL teach-
ing, preservice teacher education should focus on developing student
teachers autonomy and their decision-making and problem-solving
abilities as well as their ability to be reflective practitioners (Richards &
Lockhart, 1994; Schn, 1983).

Local educational growth. Inasmuch as many teaching methodologies

developed in the West are often difficult to introduce into EFL situations
with different educational theories and realities, in the long run EFL
countries may be better off developing methods in their own contexts.
Rather than relying on expertise, methodology, and materials controlled
and dispensed by Western ESL countries, EFL countries should strive to
establish their own research contingents and encourage methods spe-
cialists and classroom teachers to develop language teaching methods
that take into account the political, economic, social, and cultural factors
and, most important of all, the EFL situations in their countries (Daoud,
1996; Phillipson, 1992). In this way, they will be able to devise teaching
methods appropriate to their learners, their colleagues and their
societies (Edge, 1996, p. 18).


Curriculum innovation involves multiple and interrelated factors that

may influence it at different stages and at different levels (Shamin,
1996). As a socially situated activity, its success is affected by ethical and
systemic constraints, the personal characteristics of potential adopters,
the attributes of innovations and the strategies that are used to manage
change in particular contexts (Markee, 1997, p. 41). In any attempt to
improve education, teachers are central to long-lasting changes (Frymier,
1987; Fullan, 1993). How teachers as the end users of an innovation
perceive its feasibility is a crucial factor in the ultimate success or failure
of that innovation.

I thank Sandra McKay and two anonymous TESOL Quarterly reviewers for their
insightful comments on earlier versions of the article. I am also grateful to Marg
Iveson and Tracey Derwing for reading the manuscript and making useful suggestions.


Defeng Li is Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Arts at the Chinese University of
Hong Kong. His scholarly activities, publications, and teaching relate to the teaching
of ESL/EFL, to teacher education, and to translation studies.

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Please complete the following questions as appropriate.

1. Age ___________
2. Sex ____________
3. How many years have you been a teacher of English? _________________
4. Are you teaching in a middle school or high school?
h Middle School h High School
5. Which grade(s) are you teaching? ________________________
6. Are you teaching in an urban or rural middle/high school?
h Urban h Rural
7. Are you concerned about the methods you use in teaching English?
h YES h NO
8. What methods are you using now?
9. Have you tried Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)?
h YES h NO
10. Why did you or why didnt you try CLT?
11. How did you like using CLT in your classroom?


12. The following are some difficulties that other EFL teachers had in adopting CLT. Did you
come across these difficulties or do you think they might be difficulties for you in adopting
CLT in South Korea?
1. Teachers deficiency in spoken English? h YES h NO
2. Teachers deficiency in strategic and sociolinguistic
competence in English? h YES h NO
3. Teachers having little time to write communicative materials? h YES h NO
4. Students low English proficiency? h YES h NO
5. Students passive style of learning? h YES h NO
6. Lack of authentic teaching materials? h YES h NO
7. Grammar-based examinations? h YES h NO
8. Large classes? h YES h NO
9. The differences between EFL and ESL? h YES h NO